V.I. Lenin

Materialism and Empirio-criticism

Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

Chapter 1.4

Did Nature Exist Prior to Man?

We have already seen that this question is particularly repugnant to the philosophy of Mach and Avenarius. Natural science positively asserts that the earth once existed in such a state that no man or any other creature existed or could have existed on it. Organic matter is a later phenomenon, the fruit of a long evolution. It follows that there was no sentient matter, no “complexes of sensations,” no self that was supposedly “indissolubly” connected with the environment in accordance with Avenarius’ doctrine. Matter is primary, and thought, consciousness, sensation are products of a very high development. Such is the materialist theory of knowledge, to which natural science instinctively subscribes.

The question arises, have the eminent representatives of empirio-criticism observed this contradiction between their theory and natural science? They have observed it, and they have definitely asked themselves by what arguments this contradiction can be removed. Three attitudes to this question are of particular interest from the point of view of materialism, that of Avenarius himself and those of his disciples J. Petzoldt and R. Willy.

Avenarius tries to eliminate the contradiction to natural science by means of the theory of the “potential” central term in the co-ordination. As we know, co-ordination is the “indissoluble” connection between self and environment. In order to eliminate the obvious absurdity of this theory the concept of the “potential” central term is introduced. For instance, what about man’s development from the embryo? Does the environment (the “counter-term") exist if the “central term” is represented by an embryo? The embryonic system C—Avenarius replies—is the “potential central term in relation to the future individual environment” . The potential central term is never equal to zero, even when there are as yet no parents (elterliche Bestandteile), but only the “integral parts of the environment” capable of becoming parents (p. 141).

The co-ordination then is indissoluble. It is essential for the empirio-criticist to assert this in order to save the fundamentals of his philosophy—sensations and their complexes. Man is the central term of this co-ordination. But when there is no man, when he has not yet been born, the central term is nevertheless not equal to zero; it has only become a potential central term ! It is astonishing that there are people who can take seriously a philosopher who advances such arguments! Even Wundt, who stipulates that he is not an enemy of every form of metaphysics (i.e., of fideism), was compelled to admit “the mystical obscuration of the concept experience” by the word “potential,” which destroys coordination entirely (op. cit., p. 379).

And, indeed, how can one seriously speak of a co-ordination the indissolubility of which consists in one of its terms being potential?

Is this not mysticism, the very antechamber of fideism? If it is possible to think of the potential central term in relation to a future environment, why not think of it in relation to a past environment, that is, after man’s death ? You will say that Avenarius did not draw this conclusion from his theory? Granted, but that absurd and reactionary theory became the more cowardly but not any the better for that. Avenarius, in 1894, did not carry this theory to its logical conclusion, or perhaps feared to do so. But R. Schubert Soldern, as we shall see, resorted in 1896 to this very theory to arrive at theological conclusions, which in 1906 earned the approval of Mach, who said that Schubert-Soldern was following “very close paths” (to Machism). (Analysis of Sensations, p. 4.) Engels was quite right in attacking Dühring, an avowed atheist, for inconsistently leaving loopholes for fideism in his philosophy. Engels several times. and justly, brought this accusation against the materialist Dühring, although the latter had not drawn any theological conclusions, in the ‘seventies at least. But we have among us people who would have us regard them as Marxists, yet who bring to the masses a philosophy which comes very close to fideism.

Avenarius wrote in the Bemerkungen:

“. . . It would seem that from the empirio-critical standpoint natural science is not entitled to enquire about periods of our present environment which in time preceded the existence of man” (S. 144).

Avenarius answers:

“The enquirer cannot avoid mentally projecting himself (sich hinzuzudenken, i.e., imagining one self to be present) . . . for what the scientist wants (although he may not be clearly aware of it) is essentially only this: how is the earth to be defined prior to the appearance of living beings or man if I were mentally to project myself in the role of a spectator—in much the same way as though it were thinkable that we could from our earth follow the history of another star or of another solar system with the help of perfected instruments.”

An object cannot exist independently of our consciousness. “We always mentally project ourselves as the intelligence endeavouring to apprehend the object.”

This theory of the necessity of “mentally projecting” the human mind to every object and to nature prior to man is given by me in the first paragraph in the words of the “recent positivist,” R. Avenarius, and in the second, in the words of the subjective idealist, J. G. Fichte.[1] The sophistry of this theory is so manifest that it is embarrassing to analyse it. If we “mentally project” ourselves, our presence will be imaginary—but the existence of the earth prior to man is real. Man could not in practice be an observer, for instance, of the earth in an incandescent state, and to “imagine” his being present at the time is obscurantism, exactly as though I were to endeavour to prove the existence of hell by the argument that if I “mentally projected” myself thither as an observer I could observe hell. The “reconciliation” of empirio-criticism and natural science amounts to this, that Avenarius graciously consents to “mentally project” something the possibility of admitting which is excluded by natural science. No man at all educated or sound-minded doubts that the earth existed at a time when there could not have been any life on it, any sensation or any “central term,” and consequently the whole theory of Mach and Avenarius, from which it follows that the earth is a complex of sensations ("bodies are complexes of sensations") or “complexes of elements in which the psychical and physical are identical,” or “a counter-term of which the central term can never be equal to zero,” is philosophical obscurantism, the carrying of subjective idealism to absurdity.

J. Petzoldt perceived the absurdity of the position into which Avenarius had fallen and felt ashamed. In his Introduction to the Philosophy of Pure Experience (Vol. II) he devotes a whole paragraph (§ 65) “to the question of the reality of earlier (frühere) periods of the earth.” Petzoldt says:

"In the teaching of Avenarius the self (das Ich) plays a role different from that which it plays with Schuppe [let us note that Petzoldt openly and repeatedly declares: our philosophy was founded by three men—Avenarius, Mach and Schuppe], yet it is a role which, perhaps, possesses too much importance for his theory [Petzoldt was evidently influenced by the fact that Schuppe had unmasked Avenarius by showing that with him too everything rests entirely on the self; and Petzoldt wishes to make a correction] . . . Avenarius said on one occasion that we can think of a ‘region’ where no human foot has yet trodden, but to be able to think (italicised by Avenarius) of such an environment there is required what we designate by the term self (Ich-Bezeichnetes), whose (italicised by Avenarius) thought the thinking is (V. f. wiss. Ph., 18. Bd., 1894, S. 146, Anm.).”

Petzoldt replies:

"The epistemologically important question, however, is not whether we can think of such a region at all, but whether we are entitled to think of it as existing, or as having existed, independently of any individual mind.”

What is true, is true! People can think and “mentally project” for themselves any kind of hell and any kind of devil. Lunacharsky even “mentally projected” for himself—well, to use a mild expression—religious conceptions.[6] But it is precisely the purpose of the theory of knowledge to show the unreal, fantastic and reactionary character of such projections.

“. . . For, that the system C [i.e., the brain] is necessary for thought is obvious both for Avenarius and for the philosophy which is here presented. . . .”

That is not true. Avenarius’ theory of 1876 is a theory of thought without brain. And in his theory of 1891-94, as we shall presently see, there is a similar element of idealist nonsense.

“. . . But is this system C a condition of existence [italicised by Petzoldt] of, say, the Mesozoic period (Sekundärzeit) of the earth?”

And Petzoldt, presenting the argument of Avenarius I have already cited on the subject of what science actually wants and how we can “mentally project” the spectator, objects:

“No, we wish to know whether I have the right to think that the earth at that remote epoch existed in the same way as I think of it as having existed yesterday or a minute ago. Or must the existence of the earth be really made conditional, as Willy claimed, on our right at least to assume that at the given period there co-existed some system C, even though at the lowest stage of its development?”

Of this idea of Willy’s we shall speak presently.

“Avenarius evades Willy’s strange conclusion by the argument that the person who puts the question cannot mentally remove himself (sich wegdenken, i.e., think himself as absent), nor can he avoid mentally projecting himself (sich hinzuzudenken, see Avenarius, The Human Concept of the World, 1st Germ. ed., p. 130). But then Avenarius makes the individual self of the person who puts the question, or the thought of such a self, the condition not only of the act of thought regarding the uninhabitable earth, but also of the justification for believing in the existence of the earth at that time.

These false paths are easily avoided if we do not ascribe so much theoretical importance to the self. The only thing the theory of knowledge should demand of the various conceptions of that which is remote in space or time is that it be conceivable and uniquely (eindeutig) determined, the rest is the affair of the special sciences” (Vol. II, p. 325).

Petzoldt rechristened the law of causality the law of unique determination and imported into his theory, as we shall see later, the apriority of this law. This means that Petzoldt saves himself from Avenarius’ subjective idealism and solipsism (“he attributes an exaggerated importance to the self,” as the professorial jargon has it) with the help of Kantian ideas. The absence of the objective factor in Avenarius’ doctrine, the impossibility of reconciling it with the demands of natural science, which declares the earth (object) to have existed long before the appearance of living beings (subject), compelled Petzoldt to resort to causality (unique determination). The earth existed, for its existence prior to man is causally connected with the present existence of the earth. Firstly, where does causality come from? A priori,—[34] says Petzoldt. Secondly, are not the ideas of hell, devils, and Lunacharsky’s “mental projections” also connected by causality? Thirdly, the theory of the “complexes of sensations” in any case turns out to be destroyed by Petzoldt. Petzoldt failed to resolve the contradiction he observed in Avenarius, and only entangled himself still more, for only one solution is possible, viz., the recognition that the external world reflected by our mind exists independently of our mind. This materialist solution alone is really compatible with natural science, and it alone eliminates both Petzoldt’s and Mach’s idealist solution of the question of causality, which we shall speak of separately.

The third empirio-criticist, R. Willy, first raised the question of this difficulty in Avenarius’ philosophy in 1896, in an article entitled “Der Empiriokritizismus als einzig wissenschaftlicher Standpunkt” ("Empirio-Criticism as the Only Scientific Standpoint"). What about the world prior to man?—Willy asks here,[2] and at first answers according to Avenarius: “we project ourselves mentally into the past.” But then he goes on to say that we are not necessarily obliged to regard experience as human experience. “For we must simply regard the animal kingdom—be it the most insignificant worm—as primitive fellow-men (Mitmenschen) if we regard animal life in connection with general experience” (pp. 73-74). Thus, prior to man the earth was the “experience” of a worm, which discharged the functions of the “central term” in order to save Avenarius’ “co-ordination” and Avenarius’ philosophy! No wonder Petzoldt tried to dissociate himself from an argument which is not only the height of absurdity (ideas of the earth corresponding to the theories of the geologists attributed to a worm), but which does not in any way help our philosopher, for the earth existed not only before man but before any living being generally.

Willy returned to the question in 1905. The worm was now removed.[3] But Petzoldt’s “law of unique determination” could not, of course, satisfy Willy, who regarded it merely as “logical formalism.” The author says—will not the question of the world prior to man, as Petzoldt puts it, lead us “back again to the things-in-themselves of common sense"? (i.e., to materialism! How terrible indeed!). What does millions of years without life mean?

“Is time perhaps a thing-in-itself? Of course not![4] And that means that things outside men are only impressions, bits of fantasy fabricated by men with the help of a few fragments we find about us. And why not? Need the philosopher fear the stream of life? . . . And so I say to myself: abandon all this love of systems and grasp the moment (ergreife den Augenblick), the moment you are living in, the moment which alone brings happiness” (pp. 177-78).

Well, well! Either materialism or solipsism—this, in spite of his vociferous phrases, is what Willy arrives at when he analyses the question of the existence of nature before man.

To summarise. Three augurs of empirio-criticism have appeared before us and have laboured in the sweat of their brow to reconcile their philosophy with natural science, to patch up the holes of solipsism. Avenarius repeated Fichte’s argument and substituted an imaginary world for the real world. Petzoldt withdrew from Fichtean idealism and moved towards Kantian idealism. Willy, having suffered a fiasco with the “worm,” threw up the sponge and inadvertently blurted out the truth: either materialism or solipsism, or even the recognition of nothing but the present moment.

It only remains for us to show the reader how this problem was understood and treated by our own native Machians. Here is Bazarov in the Studiesin” the Philosophy of Marxism (p. 11):

“It remains for us now, under the guidance of our faithful vademecum [35] i.e., Plekhanov], to descend into the last and most horrible circle of the solipsist inferno, into that circle where, as Plekhanov assures us, every subjective idealism is menaced with the necessity of conceiving the world as it was contemplated by the ichthyosauruses and archaeopteryxes. ‘Let us mentally transport ourselves,’ writes Plekhanov, ‘to that epoch when only very remote ancestors of man existed on the earth, for instance, to the Mesozoic period. The question arises, what was the status of space, time and causality then? Whose subjective forms were they then? Were they the subjective forms of the ichthyosauruses? And whose intelligence at that time dictated its laws to nature? The intelligence of the archaeopteryx? To these queries the Kantian philosophy can give no answer. And it must be rejected as absolutely incompatible with modern science’ (L. Feuerbach, p. 117).”

Here Bazarov breaks the quotation from Plekhanov just before a very important passage—as we shall soon see—namely:

“Idealism says that without subject there is no object. The history of the earth shows that the object existed long before the subject appeared, i.e., long before the appearance of organisms possessing a perceptible degree of consciousness. . . . The history of development reveals the truth of materialism.”

We continue the quotation from Bazarov:

“. . . But does Plekhanov’s thing-in-itself provide the desired solution? Let us remember that even according to Plekhanov we can have no idea of things as they are in themselves; we know only their manifestations, only the results of their action on our sense-organs. ‘Apart from this action they possess no aspect’ (L. Feuerbach, p. 112). What sense-organs existed in the period of the ichthyosauruses? Evidently, only the sense-organs of the ichthyosauruses and their like. Only the ideas of the ichthyosauruses were then the actual, the real manifestations of things-in-themselves. Hence, according to Plekhanov also, if the paleontologist desires to remain on ‘real’ ground he must write the story of the Mesozoic period in the light of the contemplations of the ichthyosaurus. And, consequently, not a single step forward is made in comparison with solipsism.”

Such is the complete argument (the reader must pardon the lengthy quotation—we could not avoid it) of a Machian, an argument worthy of perpetuation as a first-class example of muddleheadedness.

Bazarov imagines that Plekhanov gave himself away. If things-in-themselves, apart from their action on our sense organs, have no aspect of their own, then in the Mesozoic period they did not exist except as the “aspect” of the sense organs of the ichthyosaurus. And this is the argument of a materialist! If an “aspect” is the result of the action of “things-in-themselves” on sense-organs—does it follow that things do not exist independently of sense-organs of one kind or another??

Let us assume for a moment that Bazarov indeed “misunderstood” Plekhanov’s words (improbable as such an assumption may seem), that they did appear obscure to him. Be it so. We ask: is Bazarov engaged in a fencing bout with Plekhanov (whom the Machians exalt to the position of the only representative of materialism!), or is he endeavouring to clear up the problem of materialism ? If Plekhanov seemed obscure to you, or contradictory, and so forth, why did you not turn to other materialists? Is it because you do not know them? But ignorance is no argument.

If Bazarov indeed does not know that the fundamental premise of materialism is the recognition of the external world, of the existence of things outside and independent of our mind, this is truly a striking case of crass ignorance. We would remind the reader of Berkeley, who in 1710 rebuked the materialists for their recognition of “objects in themselves” existing independently of our mind and reflected by our mind. Of course, everybody is free to side with Berkeley or anyone else against the materialists; that is unquestionable. But it is equally unquestionable that to speak of the materialists and distort or ignore the fundamental premise of all materialism is to import preposterous confusion into the problem.

Was Plekhanov right when he said that for idealism there is no object without a subject, while for materialism the object exists independently of the subject and is reflected more or less adequately in the subject’s mind? If this is wrong, then any man who has the slightest respect for Marxism should have pointed out this error of Plekhanov’s, and should have dealt not with him, but with someone else, with Marx, Engels, or Feuerbach, on the question of materialism and the existence of nature prior to man. But if this is right, or, at least, if you are unable to find an error here, then your attempt to shuffle the cards and to confuse in the reader’s mind the most elementary conception of materialism, as distinguished from idealism, is a literary indecency.

As for the Marxists who are interested in the question apart from every little word uttered by Plekhanov, we shall quote the opinion of L. Feuerbach, who, as is known (perhaps not to Bazarov?), was a materialist, and through whom Marx and Engels, as is well known, came from the idealism of Hegel to their materialist philosophy. In his rejoinder to R. Haym, Feuerbach wrote:

“Nature, which is not an object of man or mind, is for speculative philosophy, or at least for idealism, a Kantian thing-in-itself [we shall speak later in detail of the fact that our Machians confuse the Kantian thing-in-itself with the materialist thing-in-itself], an abstraction without reality, but it is nature that causes the downfall of idealism. Natural science, at least in its present state, necessarily leads us back to a point when the conditions for human existence were still absent, when nature, i.e., the earth, was not yet an object of the human eye and mind, when, consequently, nature was an absolutely non-human entity (absolut unmenschliches Wesen). Idealism may retort: but nature also is something thought of by you (von dir gedachte). Certainly, but from this it does not follow that this nature did not at one time actually exist, just as from the fact that Socrates and Plato do not exist for me if I do not think of them, it does not follow that Socrates and Plato did not actually at one time exist without me.”[5]

This is how Feuerbach regarded materialism and idealism from the standpoint of the existence of nature prior to the appearance of man. Avenarius’ sophistry (the “mental projection of the observer") was refuted by Feuerbach, who did not know the “recent positivism” but who thoroughly knew the old idealist sophistries. And Bazarov offers us absolutely nothing new, but merely repeats this sophistry of the idealists: “Had I been there [on earth, prior to man], I would have seen the world so-and-so” (Studiesin” the Philosophy of Marxism, p. 29). In other words: if I make an assumption that is obviously absurd and contrary to natural science (that man can be an observer in an epoch before man existed), I shall be able to patch up the breach in my philosophy!

This gives us an idea of the extent of Bazarov’s knowledge of the subject and of his literary methods. Bazarov did not even hint at the “difficulty” with which Avenarius, Petzoldt and Willy wrestled; and, moreover, he made such a hash of the whole subject, placed before the reader such an incredible hotchpotch, that there ultimately appears to be no difference between materialism and solipsism! Idealism is represented as “realism,” and to materialism is ascribed the denial of the existence of things outside of their action on the sense-organs! Truly, either Feuerbach did not know the elementary difference between materialism and idealism, or else Bazarov and Co. have completely altered the elementary truths of philosophy.

Or let us take Valentinov, a philosopher who, naturally, is delighted with Bazarov:

  1. “Berkeley is the founder of the correlativist theory of the relativity of subject and object” (p. 148). This is not Berkeleian idealism, oh, no! This is a “profound analysis.”
  2. “In the most realistic aspect, irrespective of the forms [!] of their usual idealist interpretation [only interpretation!], the fundamental premises of the theory are formulated by Avenarius” (p. 148). Infants, as we see, are taken in by the mystification!
  3. “Avenarius’ conception of the starting point of knowledge is that each individual finds himself in a definite environment, in other words, the individual and the environment are represented as connected and inseparable [!] terms of one and the same co-ordination” (p. 148). Delightful! This is not idealism—Bazarov and Valentinov have risen above materialism and idealism—this “inseparability” of the subject and object is “realism” itself.
  4. “Is the reverse assertion correct, namely, that there is no counter-term to which there is no corresponding central term—an individual? Naturally [!] not. . . . In the Archean period the woods were verdant . . . yet there was no man” (p. 143). That means that the inseparable can be separated! Is that not “natural"?
  5. “Yet from the standpoint of the theory of knowledge, the question of the object in itself is absurd” (p. 148). Of course! When there were no sentient organisms objects were nevertheless “complexes of elements” identical with sensations!
  6. “The immanentist school, in the person of Schubert-Soldern and Schuppe, clad these [!] thoughts in an unsatisfactory form and found itself in the cul-de-sac of solipsism” (p. 149). But “these thoughts” themselves, of course, contain no solipsism, and empirio-criticism, of course, is not a paraphrase of the reactionary theories of the immanentists, who lie when they declare themselves to be in sympathy with Avenarius!

This, Messrs. Machians, is not philosophy, but an incoherent jumble of words.


[1] J. G. Fichte, Rezension des Aenesidemus [Review of Aenesidemus], 1794, Sämtliche Werke, Bd. I, S. 19. —Lenin

[2] Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie. Band XX. 1896. —Lenin

[3] R. Willy, Gegen die Schulweisheit [Against School Wisdom], 1905, S. 173-78. —Lenin

[4] We shall discuss this point with the Machians later. —Lenin

[5] L. Feuerbach, Sämtliche Werke [Collected Works], herausgegeben von Bolin und Jodl, Band VII, Stuttgart, 1903, S. 510; or Karl Grün, L. Feuerbach in seinem Briefwechsel und Nachlass, sowie in seiner philosophischen Charakterentwicklung [His Correspondence, Posthumous Works and Philosophical Development], I. Band, Leipzig, 1874, S. 423-35. —Lenin

[6] It can be seen from Lenin’s letter to A. I. Ulyanova-Yelizarova, dated December 6 (19), 1908, that the original phrase in the manuscript, viz., “Lunacharsky even ‘mentally projected’ for himself a god”, was toned down because of the censorship. Lenin wrote in his letter: “\thinspace‘Mentally projected for himself a god’ should be altered to ‘mentally projected for himself’—well to use a mild expression—‘religious conceptions’, or something of that sort” (Collected Works, present edition, Vol. 37, p. 403).